Nachos to Beat
The Cal-Mex take on carne asada nachos at La Sirena Grill outshines the competition. The key is the precise ratio of primo goods: grilled grass-fed beef, luscious Hass avocados, organic pinto beans, jack cheese, and spicy-fresh pico de gallo. Wash it down with watermelon-strawberry agua fresca. 347 Mermaid St., Laguna Beach, 949‑497‑8226; 30862 S. Coast Highway, laguna beach, 949‑499‑2301; 3931 Portola Parkway, Irvine, 714‑508‑8226, lasirenagrill.com
Spicy, Crunchy, Good
Spicy deep-fried mushrooms and red onions are so much more ravishing than the simple ingredients suggest. Sol Cocina fries them in beer batter for a crunchy start, and the generous blitz of chopped scallions and aged cotija rallies the warm veggies to a higher form. From-scratch habanero salsa is the addictive and incendiary dip. 251 E. Coast Highway, Newport Beach, 949‑675‑9800, solcocina.com
Fundido by the Forkful
Ooey, gooey, and ideal for sharing, the bubbling cheese—Oaxaca, pepper jack, blue, Parmesan—that arrives in its cazuela at Taco Rosa gets added dimension from sliced earthy mushrooms and bits of longaniza—a spicy chorizo. Fold forkfuls into house-made corn or flour tortillas. 2632 San Miguel Drive, Newport Beach, 949‑720‑0980; 13792 Jamboree Road, Irvine, 714‑505‑6080, tacorosa.com
Chilaquiles for a Crowd
In addition to the chilaquiles at Anepalco’s Café, we like the version at Taqueria Zamora. Sturdy house-made corn chips simmered in red or green sauce (roja, por favor) evolve into a perfect state of chewy-crusty-soggy that melds with cheese, onions, and eggs your way. For an extra buck, add chicken or carne asada. Megaportion includes beans and rice. $9.3121 S. Main St., Santa Ana, 714‑557‑0907, taqueriazamora.net
Father-son lonchera La Chiva Torta does the carnitas ahogada (drowned) sandwich proud. One bite of the pork-stuffed fresh bolillo roll, dunked in uncompromising chile de arbol sauce, brings tears of joy—and a second clears your sinuses. Add some lemon-cured fresh onions, and your favorite French dip is tedious by comparison. Cash only. 454 Mortimer St., Santa Ana, 714‑235‑9125
Mole de olla is something of a misnomer. The dish has nothing to do with the famous, complex sauces that might instantly come to mind; rather, it’s a hearty beef stew. And the version at Fonda La Meche is fantastic. Lap up the chili-colored broth to find hunks of tender beef, corn, potato, and zucchini. 7483 Katella Ave., Stanton, 714‑484‑0105
Groovy ’shroom Tacos
Enjoy Taco Loco’s lusty spawn of surf and counter culture while you people-watch on the sunny patio. Other menu items can be dodgy, but this taco’s spice, ’shrooms, and soft blue-corn tortillas fuse into a tasty groove. They’re pricey at $2.75, but on Thursdays, they’re an easier-to-swallow $1.90. 640 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, 949‑497‑1635, tacoloco.net
Potzol Den Cano is probably best known for its fine pozole, but breakfast here means much more than soup. Look no further than the fantastic huevos al mole, a pair of fried eggs atop two tortillas and a slice of ham, all bathed in rich, toasty mole. Let nothing go to waste—sop up all the mole with a few slices of bread and a side of cactus salad draped in melted cheese. 1003 S. Bristol St., Santa Ana, 714‑664‑0558, potzoldencano.com
Classic Combo Plates
For many, visions of Mexican food inevitably involve combo plates, massive meals built around heaps of meat and sides of rice and beans. At Lindo Michoacan, they’re done right. Maybe it’s the tender chicken bathed in mole negro or the pork ribs stewed in salsa roja—no matter, they’re almost universally great, especially when stuffed into a couple of excellent handmade tortillas. 4412 W. Fifth St., Santa Ana, 714‑554‑0943; 327 S. Anaheim Blvd., Anaheim, 714‑535‑0265
Porky, Sweet, and Tart
Order these Pork Loin Medallions at Gabbi’s Mexican Kitchen and taste the glorious results of chef Gabbi Patrick’s combined Napa training and Mexican heritage. A near-dainty butternut squash tamale plays sweet refinement to supple slices of slow-roasted pork loin, played against onion marmalade, seared fresh corn, and creme fraiche. Cool and warm, meaty and chewy, sweet and tart—it’s all there. $26. 141 S. Glassell St., Orange, 714‑633‑3038, gabbipatrick.com
Pizza by Any Name
Calling this large Mexican pizza tlayuda mixta at Casa Oaxaca saves words, but hardly describes the fiesta in every morsel. Sizzling sausage, steak, and porky bits top a tangle of string cheese over a smear of smashed black beans—supported by a crisp, hand-formed corn tortilla. Velvety avocado and slices of tomato supply fresh, juicy support. 3317 W. First St., Santa Ana, 714‑554‑0905, casaoaxacarestaurant.com
Combo Plate Heaven
Carmelita’s, the small, family-owned newbie out of Sacramento, surprises us with dapper service, scratch cooking, and this thoughtful combo plate: well-seasoned chicken napped with complex mole poblano, and fluffy masa filled with rich pork. No wonder locals are smitten. 217 Broadway St., Laguna Beach, 949‑715‑7829; 31441 Santa Margarita Parkway, Rancho Santa Margarita, 949‑709‑7600, carmelitaskitchen.com
The tamal Oaxaqueño at El Moctezuma is as big as a brick. Unfurl its slick banana leaf wrapper and behold moist masa so tender it barely contains the reservoir of complex, chocolate-enriched mole negro within. Split it open and it floods out, instantly drowning memories of those sad, stale tamales of holidays past. 809 N. Fairview St., Santa Ana, 714‑648‑0402; 12531 Harbor Blvd., Garden Grove, 714‑658‑8482; 1740 W. Chapman Ave., Orange, 714‑456‑0080
Get Your Goat
At El Cabrito, order the birria. You can try the slow-roasted goat packed into a few tacos, but what you really want is the birria plate. You’ll get rice and beans on the side, but the mound of impossibly tender goat, juices pouring forth with each bite, is what captivates. True fans chase it with sips of the goat consomme served alongside. 1604 W. First St., Santa Ana, 714‑543‑8461
Carnitas for Piglets
Twin corn tortillas, floppy and hot, can barely surround Q-Tortas’ portly pile of shredded carnitas packed into these tacos. The bite of raw onions and the sass of cilantro can’t tame the sweet-salty tender meat with crispy, caramelized ends. Pour on the hot sauce—this pig can take it. 220 S. Bradford Ave., Placentia, 714‑993‑3270
Sunday Brunch Churros
Churros are dreamy only when they’re fresh from the fryer, so we save our love for the continuous supply at Taco Rosa’s all-you-can-eat bargain Sunday brunch. When you’re lucky, the sugar-crusted edges almost burn your fingers as you tear them in half for passing under the kitschy chocolate fountain. Brunch for adults, $20; kids 12 and younger, $9. 2632 San Miguel Drive, Newport Beach, 949‑720‑0980; 13792 Jamboree Road, Irvine, 714‑505‑6080, tacorosa.com
Since the word is out on Anepalco’s Café’s espléndido chilaquiles, this rave goes to the beefy house-grind patty gussied up with melting Oaxaca cheese, roasted tomatoes, crunchy cabbage shreds, and musky huitlacoche aioli smeared on the toasted brioche bun. Look out, Umami Burger, $15. Ayres Hotel, 3737 W. Chapman Ave., Orange, 714‑456‑9642, anepalcoscafe.com
El Campeon does many things well, but the South County staple is, at its very core, all about meat. The standards are here: pounds of carnitas, carne asada, and grilled chicken all hacked apart with a few precise whacks of a cleaver. But it’s the odd bits you want. Try a cabeza taco or one loaded with chicharrones, curls of crispy fried pork skin. 31921 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, 949‑240‑3141, elcampeon.com
Man’s Best Friend
A so-fresh bolillo bulges with hidden delights starting with Rubalcava’s supersavory Sonoran hot dog, wrapped in bacon, grilled, and nestled in a bed of pinto beans. Chopped tomatoes, crunchy diced onions, and a dusting of cotija are terrific toppers, but it’s that one creamy crescent of ripe avocado that propels this flavor bomb to peak experience. 506 W. Chapman Ave., Placentia, 714‑524‑0117
Clouds of Hominy
Las Brisas de Apatzingan’s fragrant bowl of pozole verde brims with hominy clouds and slow-simmered pork. Add-ons include: potato taquitos, queso-filled jalapeño, diced onion, shredded cabbage, lime wedges, and, wait for it … chicharrones. You can’t make it for this price—$11—and it wouldn’t be as alluring. 1524 S. Flower St., Santa Ana, 714‑545‑5584
Molten Queso Joy
Don’t expect a flat, griddled flour tortilla. At Tacos Jalisco, this shrimp quesadilla’s twin seared semicircles are more like pastry-crusted empanadas, and they ooze molten queso and tender shrimp the size of quarters. Use a fork or you’ll burn your fingers. Rice and beans come with this gut-buster of a plate. 480 N. Tustin St., Orange, 714‑771‑5819, tacosjaliscoorange.com
Rx for Hangovers
Frankly, we’re suckers for any of the egg dishes at old Placentia’s El Farolito, but this huge order of huevos con chorizo wins by virtue of the many hangovers it’s abetted. Only the best greasy carbs will cure a wicked case of the booze flu. Lardy beans and steamy tortillas complete the treatment. Served only until 3 p.m.201 S. Bradford Ave., Placentia, 714‑993‑7880, elfarolitomex.com
Ideal Al Pastor
Few things are as disappointing as poorly prepared al pastor. Thankfully, Taqueria 2 Guys does it right: a massive cone of well-seasoned pork stuck on a spit and spun slowly in front of a fire, its juices basting the heap of meat. Here, the excellent tacos al pastor are assembled exactly as they should be: ribbons of pork sheared from the spit and topped with onions, cilantro, and a few thin slices of pineapple. 925 W. Warner Ave., Santa Ana, 714‑557‑4350, taqueria2guys.com
Fantastic Fish Burritos
It’s impossibly easy to devour a whole school of fish tacos at Los Cotija’s. But when even that won’t suffice, there’s the equally excellent fish burrito. The restaurant doesn’t waste space with rice and beans—the burrito is packed only with expertly fried fish and crisp cabbage slaw. Dab some salsa onto each bite and dream of a beach breeze.11951 Euclid St., Garden Grove, 714‑636‑3944; 642 E. First St., Tustin, 714‑832‑7681, loscotijastacoshopoc.com
Few dishes are as consistently comforting at La Cocina de Ricardo as one of its many excellent soups. A big bowl of caldo tlalpeño, a chicken soup loaded with vegetables, fortified with chipotle chilies, and topped with slices of avocado, is always a pleasure. 23532 El Toro Road, Lake Forest, 949‑586‑1477, lacocinadericardo.com
Of course you can order the savory pork in the usual array of tacos, burritos, and tortas that tempt you here at Carnitas Los Reyes, but go whole hog on the carnitas plate: a mound of fatty and just-crispy pork, rice, beans, onions, cilantro, and a few warm tortillas on the side. 273 S. Tustin St., Orange, 714‑744‑9337
Menudo, of course, is famous as Mexico’s primary hangover cure, a restorative soup with the power to relieve even the most crushing headache. On weekends, some seek out El Camino Real’s rendition. Its plump hominy and tender cuts of beef stomach lashed with a little chili heat could cure just about anything. 303 N. Euclid St., Fullerton, 714‑447‑3962
Gourmet To Go
A party catered by Soho Taco is a party you want to attend. But when an invitation fails to land in your inbox, it’s time to track down the restaurant’s roving truck. There’s no way to go wrong here, but look for the lobster taco: grilled lobster drenched in garlic butter, topped with shredded cabbage, and napped with chipotle sour cream. Various locations, sohotaco.com
The sister restaurant to Santa Ana’s well-regarded El Rincón Chilango, Los Chilangos similarly specializes in the cuisine of Mexico City. Masa-based antojitos (street snacks) reign here, so try a gordita stuffed with chicharron (fried pig skin) or a proper quesadilla bursting with huitlacoche. 1830 W. Lincoln Blvd., Anaheim, 714‑999‑5515
At Mariscos Licenciado, there may be nothing as decadent as the fried prawns. They’re cut clear in half, fried, and lacquered with a powerful blend of butter and chili powder. Prying them from their shells is only half the fun; licking your fingers clean of the butter and chili powder is even more rewarding. 1052 N. State College Blvd., Anaheim, 714‑776‑3415
Even the brawniest torta can’t vie with this properly constructed cemita, a towering sandwich from the Mexican state of Puebla. While size does matter at La Cemita Poblana, its cemitas are as delicious as they are monstrous: gently toasted sesame-seed rolls overflowing with stringy quesillo cheese, your meat of choice (try beef milanesa), a smear of refried beans, smoky chipotle or bracing jalapeño, and, when in season, the pungent herb pápalo. 519 S. Main St., Santa Ana, 714‑664‑0892
The late-night and occasional early morning crawl from a bar to Taqueria de Anda is one of the county’s great pleasures. Three of the minichain’s locations stay open 24 hours. A few lengua tacos or a carne asada burrito is all it takes to drift blissfully to sleep. 1029 E. Fourth St., Santa Ana, 714‑558‑0856; 291 N. Tustin Ave., Orange, 714‑639‑1020; 308 W. Valencia Drive, Fullerton, 714‑871‑4211, taqueriadeanda.com
Tamales With a Following
The “green” corn in El Cholo’s signature masa bombs refers to the fresh sweet corn of the season, May through October. The moist tamales also include sharp cheddar cheese and strips of mild green chilies, and have a cult following. 840 E. Whittier Blvd., La Habra, 562‑691‑4618; 5465 Alton Parkway, Irvine, 949‑451‑0044, elcholo.com
Even in the dead of winter, the ceviche at Ostioneria Bahia feels like a rush of summer. Shrimp and octopus are options, but try the simple fish ceviche sluiced with lime juice and tossed with tomatoes, onions, and cilantro. It’s transporting, a ceviche that inspires a beach-bound state of mind. 4429 E. Chapman Ave., Orange, 714‑538‑8271; 144 S. Tustin Ave., Orange, 714‑997‑2010, bahiamexicanseafood.com
Pleased to Meat You
The plato especial at El Fortin easily could feed three. It’s Oaxaca on a giant plate: a chile relleno, tasajo (dried skirt steak), cecina enchilada (chili-marinated pork), fried cheese, black beans, guacamole, and fried plantains. You’ll walk away stuffed, but very happy. 700 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, 714‑773‑4290; 10444 Dale Ave., Stanton, 714‑252‑9120, restaurantelfortin.com
It would be entirely reasonable to visit La Poblana Bakery and notice nothing but the glorious pastries. But the bakery also makes a wonderful pambazo, a sandwich popular in Mexico City that’s built with moist, chili-dipped bread, and filled with potatoes and chorizo. And when you’re done, there is, of course, dessert. 604 W. Chapman Ave., Orange, 714‑771‑4465
A Taste of the Past
A meal at Sarinana’s Tamale Factory is as much about its history as its food. The restaurant dates to 1939, and for more than 70 years diners have descended upon the tiny building for the same two reasons: classic pork tamales, and remarkably crisp tacos dorados, their fried shells all but bursting with beef. 2218 W. Fifth St., Santa Ana, 714‑558‑8650
Bread Pudding Delight
This deep and fluffy bread pudding from Sol Cocina aims for your sweet tooth. The warm chocolate cake is as dark as a brownie, but with bits of banana to lighten it up. Each forkful begs to be dragged through swirls of the cinnamon crema and chocolate syrup that surround it. 251 E. Coast Highway, newport beach, 949‑675‑9800, solcocina.com
Fat, soft meatballs, firm chunks of carrots, corn on the cob, and skin-on potatoes in beefy broth vaguely scented with cinnamon—South of Nick’s classic albondigas puts others to shame. The accompanying tender, just-griddled corn tortillas bring tears of joy you can blame on the extra-hot salsa. At $7 a pop, it’s the cheapest rainy-day therapy in South County. 110 N. El Camino Real, San Clemente, 949‑481‑4545, southofnicks.com
Key Moments in O.C. Mexican Food
1957 Disneyland opens Casa de Fritos in Frontierland, substituting corn chips for tortillas in an, ahem, corporate take on comida Mexicana.
1962 El Cholo opens in La Habra, preceded by the 1927 original in Los Angeles.
1965 Richard Nixon orders ala Mexicana at San Juan Capistrano’s El Adobe.
1967 Taco Bell opens stand No. 100in Anaheim.
1972 El Torito opens in Newport Beach, owner Larry Cano’s first O.C. location in his campaign to spread upscale Mexican dining throughout our ’burbs.
1977 Cano’s, an ultraposh Mexican venue, opens on Newport Harbor, in the building where A’Maree’s is today.
1979 Las Brisas opens in Laguna Beach, boasting a panoramic view that has few rivals to this day.
1986 Cano opens upscale El Torito Grill at Fashion Island.
1986 Taco Bell moves its headquarters to Irvine.
1988 Wahoo’s Fish Taco opens in Costa Mesa.
1991 Ivan Calderón opens Taco Mesa in Costa Mesa, focusing on fresh, organic ingredients with a California spin; today there are three locations.
2006 Gabbi’s Mexican Kitchen opens in Orange, mixing Gabbi Patrick’s family restaurant roots with her Napa culinary training.
2008 Javier’s opens at Crystal Cove; another followed at the Aria in Las Vegas in 2012.
2009 Taco Bell spokeschihuahua Gidget dies.
2012 South of Nick’s opens in San Clemente, in a space that was city pioneer Ole Hanson’s vintage 1928 office.
1. Try as whiskey might, it can’t beat elite tequila. Love margaritas? Try La Calavera at Gabbi’s Mexican Kitchen—passion fruit, blood orange liqueur, basil, and KAH blanco poured from a hand-painted skull bottle.
2. Colin Pflugradt of Sol Cocina infuses Corralejo blanco with fresh pineapple, coconut water, limes, and musky vanilla beans. It’s served inside a husked coconut.
3. Purists savor their dose of agave ranchdesignated Maestro Dobel Diamante in Taco Rosa’s house-made sangrita.
Taco Truck Titans
Five fave O.C. noshes from Gustavo Arellano, author of “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America,” and “¡Ask a Mexican!”
1. Taco Acorazado, Alebrije’s Grill
A Cuernavacan specialty made with a fresh corn tortilla as big as a Frisbee, buried under rice, grilled onions, jalapeños, and milanesa (breaded beef cutlet). Mexican O.C. at its best. At Main and Cubbon streets, Santa Ana. @alebrijestaco
2. Shrimp Taco, Soho Taco
Gabriel Zambrano is a meat man by trade, but shrimp tacos star at his truck: buttery, tart, spiked with a special sauce that rivals anything produced by his uncles over at Taco Mesa. Ask for the offmenu salsa de aceite, and prepare for blissful hell. sohotaco.com
3. Bone Marrow Quesadilla, Taco Maria
Carlos Salgado worked at Michelin-starred restaurants in the Bay Area, but now wows the county with his refined takes on tradition. Everything he makes is spectacular, but the bone marrow quesadilla— earthy, crispy, luscious—is textbook assimilation. tacomaria.com
4. Aguachile, Mariscos Los Corales
My favorite seafood dish of all time: raw whole shrimp swimming in chilled lime juice alongside cucumbers, red onions, and jalapeño salsa. Perfect any time of the year. Fire and ice done right. At Main and Pine streets, Santa Ana
5. Vampiro, Tacos y Mulitas Ruben
They’re famous for mulitas, which are halfway between a quesadilla and a gordita. A recent addition is the vampiro, a flour-tortilla quesadilla nearly 2 feet long, stuffed with the meat of your choice, and topped with pickled red onion. ¡Bueno! At Main and Walnut streets, Santa Ana
Go ahead, raise the temperature. Five great O.C. sauces, with tips on how to enjoy ’em.
The sauce to try from this nascent Newport Beach brand is Ajísimo’s habanero hot sauce. It’s fiery, to be sure, but the habanero is tempered with vinegar, red jalapeños, garlic, and onion. At select restaurants and ajisimo.com
Gabbi’s Mexican Kitchen
Gabbi Patrick bottles a number of notable hot sauces, with jalapeño the standout. It possesses a herbaceous kick from the tomatillos and extra green chilies, a welcome respite from the usual smoky sauces. 141 S. Glassell St., Orange, 714‑633‑3038, gabbipatrick.highwire.com/products
Famously founded by Dexter Holland, lead singer of The Offspring, Surf City-based Gringo Bandito is the hot sauce that should be in every O.C. pantry—all-purpose in the way of Tapatío or Cholula, but a bit spicier, smokier, and great on everything. At most major supermarkets and gringobandito.com
This Capistrano Beach-based company doesn’t adhere to the usual formulas. Like its Thai and Vietnamese cousins, this sweet jalapeño sauce is for those who want a touch of heat without the full-on fire. At select markets and scottybhotsauces.com
Like his tacos, Greg Daniels’ hot sauces have a style all their own. The ghost chili, made from the hottest pepper on Earth, is blazing, but there’s flavor too—a tart, mustardy edge that lends itself to hearty cuts of meat. 2937 S. Bristol St., Costa Mesa, 714‑922‑6010, tacoasylum.com
Top-notch mariachi bands bypass restaurants to play private gigs that pay better and usually include enthusiastic fans—weddings, parties, festivals, and corporate events. Still, appealing holdouts remain. Carmen Ceja’s Las Golondrinas de Capistrano—with violinist Angelica Martinez—plays Dana Point’s El Torito every Friday, 6:45 to 8:45 p.m. 34521 Golden Lantern St., 949-496-6311, eltorito.com
For a more traditional dinner-show format, try El Nuevo Mariachi Restaurant, but be sure to check showtimes and make reservations. 650 N. Tustin St., Orange, 714‑532‑0004, elnuevomariachi.com
La Vida Dulce
The conchas sweet bread at Grande Bakery in Santa Ana is as good as it gets. 214 N. Grand Ave., Santa Ana, 714‑547‑1851
Gabbi’s Mexican Kitchen offers two excellent sauces for its fluffy churros: cajeta (goat’s milk caramel) and a molten chocolate-chili. 141 S. Glassell St., Orange, 714‑633‑3038
Unwrap the strawberry dessert tamale at La Poblana Bakery and be hooked. 604 W. Chapman Ave., Orange, 714‑771‑4465
Carlos Salgado’s Taco María truck is ground zero for flan de queso made with milky homemade ricotta, scattered with fresh figs, honey caramel,
and lime, or strewn with sangria-soaked raspberries. tacomaria.com
Tortillería Flor de Mexicali is tiny, but the tortillas pack big flavor. It’s worth the wait for these rough-hewn discs with enough heft for weighty fillings and enough flavor to be devoured on their own. 1212 S. Bristol St., Santa Ana, 714‑751‑4132
The virtues of El Toro Carnicería’s in-house tacos are many, but the pleasure of taking some home is unmatched. 1340 W. First St., Santa Ana, 714‑836‑1393
For those with a DIY streak, La Reina Markets sell masa in many stages. But the tortillas made in-house are full of a rich corn flavor revealed in brief toastings on a comal. At three O.C. locations, lareinamarkets.com
Where To Shop
Brimming with branded inventory, weekly specials, and multiple fresh-food departments, O.C.’s 13 Northgate Markets are under the wing of the Reynoso family. Locations countywide, northgatemarkets.com
At roomy Ranchito Super Market, look for cut-to-order meats, fresh-baked tortillas, custom-cakes, trimmed nopalitos, and dried chiles. 5952 Westminster Blvd., Westminster, 714‑379‑0840, ranchitosupermarkets.com
La Pradera Carniceria is all about meat. Excellent marinated golden pollo, carne asada, and pork adobada. Fresh tortillas, bright salsas, and fair prices at this neighborhood gem. 2801 S. Bristol St., Santa Ana, 714‑662‑1234
Photographs by Priscilla Iezzi
This article originally appeared in the February 2013 issue. To purchase the full story, or order a print or digital copy of the February 2013 issue, click here.